Notre Dame LB Drue Tranquill ready for last triple-option assignments

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Nearly four years ago, Drue Tranquill encountered the triple option for the first time.

He never had to play against the retro offensive scheme while at Fort Wayne Carroll High. But eight games into his freshman season at Notre Dame, Tranquill suited up for the Irish to play against Navy.

He recorded five tackles while making his first career start in the 49-39 Notre Dame victory in Landover, Md. Tranquill has seen the triple option in four games since then: Georgia Tech in 2015, Navy and Army in 2016 and Navy in 2017. He was sidelined by his second ACL injury for the Navy game in 2015.

Somewhere along the way, Tranquill started to feel a little more comfortable defending that offense.

“When you play it for the first few times, it’s just so fast and you’re trying to find the ball,” Tranquill said. “After you’ve seen the look so many times, your peripheral gets used to seeing a certain look and you know where the ball’s going just based on your initial vision. Things definitely slow down for you.”

Nearly one-tenth of Tranquill’s career tackles have come in those five games against triple-option offenses. The graduate student will certainly add to that total of 24 tackles when No. 3 Notre Dame (7-0) takes on Navy (2-5) in San Diego on Saturday.

It will be the last time Tranquill has to defend that offense. He’ll be happy when it’s over too.

“I’m glad they don’t do that in the NFL,” Tranquill said. “It feels like you played a game already midweek during practice, just getting after it and hitting every single play.”

The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Tranquill will be diagnosing the triple option from a different vantage point this year. He’s played against the offense at safety and at rover. Now at inside linebacker, he’ll have to deal with more traffic in the middle of the field.

“Playing inside a little bit, there’s obviously different keys, different reads,” Tranquill said. “But at the end of the day, it’s the same plays.”

Tranquill has taken notes from former Irish linebacker Greer Martini, who tallied 44 tackles against Navy in four years. He’s watched Martini on film all week as part of his preparation.

The success Tranquill has had against the triple option shouldn’t be surprising. Defending it requires discipline, and the two-time captain lives that way on and off the field.

He’s kept himself healthy for the majority of the last two-and-a-half years after season-ending ACL injuries ended his freshman and sophomore seasons. He’s worked hard to prevent setbacks with either knee — he injured the left as a freshman and right as a sophomore.

Tranquill has played the last two games with a cast on his left hand after breaking a metacarpal in the first half against Stanford. He’s already predicting he will be able to get rid of it in a couple weeks, even though Brian Kelly wasn’t so certain of that on Thursday.

Regardless, the Irish head coach has recognized how much work Tranquill puts in to prepare his body every week.

“He rates up there with the top guys that I’ve coached relative to nutrition, hydration, seven days a week,” Kelly said. “It’s a lifestyle for him more so. Generally you see that from much more mature, professional athletes. I see that more from some of our players that come back that are now professional athletes, that now get how important their body is to them in their vocation.”

One thing Tranquill won’t have to worry too much about when it comes to his body is cut blocks from Navy offensive linemen. Most of those blocks occur near the line of scrimmage — something Tranquill encountered at times while playing rover.

Tranquill hopes most of his collisions come with the fullback.

“You don’t necessarily see as much of (the cut blocks on linebackers) inside, but you have to be able to scrape over top and get to the fullback,” Tranquill said. “It’s more dive-focused inside whereas the outside you were worried about pitch and quarterback.”

Notre Dame’s defensive line will have to bear the brunt of those low blocks. The four-man units up front have made Tranquill’s transition to inside linebacker a little bit more manageable. He’s still been able to roam free and lead the Irish with 38 solo tackles. His 46 total tackles are 10 behind fellow inside linebacker Te’von Coney for the team high.

“They pull double teams off Te’von and I and allow us to run free through the alleys,” Tranquill said of the Irish defensive line. “This is my first time really in the box, so I don’t know what it’s like to not play with a good defensive line in front of me. They’ve made my job easy this year. They’ve made plays all over the field for us.”

Playmaking tends to be different against Navy. The offense requires defenses to stick to their responsibilities. The repetition of the triple option waits and tries to identify defenders making mistakes. As long as Navy has the ball, it’s doing what it wants.

“You have to be assignment sound,” Tranquill said. “Last year, they had what, 42 minutes of possession time, and so it’s critical to not let them bleed yards down the field and to get our offense the ball back to give them enough possessions to win the game.”

Navy had possession for 42:42 to be exact. The Midshipmen had the ball with less than two minutes remaining and a chance to tie the game, but the comeback effort fizzled in a 24-17 Irish victory.

Various forms of the option have seeped into the spread offenses that are so prevalent in college football. Run-pass options (RPOs) and read options are all evolved forms of the option concept, so having experienced those spread looks must help when defending the triple option, right?

“Not really,” Tranquill said. “Triple option is its own animal, man. It’s way different.”

He would know.

Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill (23) has collected 24 tackles in five games against triple-option offenses in his Irish career.